Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Nile Cruise

Since my last few entries were brutally long, I have decided for your sake and my sake to keep this entry short. For the purposes of this entry, the photos speak louder than words ever could anyway, so be sure to check them out. I would like to apologize also for how long it has taken me to write since my last entry. I have been traveling quite extensively over the last month and have accumulated a lot of memories to sort out, stuff I really want to write about here. It’s just taking a long time to get around to it. But I will start now with the Nile cruise that Teri and I took in early January.

The cruise ran from Aswan, a town far up the Nile in southern Egypt, to Luxor. We left Cairo by train and rode overnight (about 12 hours total) to Aswan. The small town was quite a contrast to Cairo. The train station was just a few hundred feet from the Nile, which was not surrounded by buildings as it is in Cairo. It was a much more natural setting. We looked across the river to a large sandy hill, which we later learned had graves from Pharonic times carved into the side.

We found our boat, the M/S Nile Plaza, docked not far away. We deposited our bags for the porter to take, checked in, and then decided to take a walk along the Nile since the boat didn’t leave the dock for several hours. Also, it was a beautiful day. Unfortunately a young guy riding a bicycle physically accosted Teri as we walked. As he rode by he grabbed her rear end and she just flipped out. She chased the guy and screamed at him. He started peddling furiously as she got closer. His eyes bulged out in surprise as he certainly did not expect that reaction from her. All of this happened so quickly I didn’t know what was going on. It was not a great way to start a vacation, but Teri seemed to take it in stride and didn’t let it ruin her vacation.

Our boat was nice. It had a pool on the deck, but it was too cold to swim. The crewmembers were all Egyptian, but apparently are around tourists all the time because they didn’t hit on the women or stare unnecessarily. That was a nice change. In fact they were very nice and were most hospitable. I think my favorite part of our time on the boat was all of the fantastic food. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner we went to the dining room and ate sumptuous meals. The experience was oddly reminiscent of the dining scene in the movie Titanic. The waiters were all dressed in tuxedoes and provided great service. The waiter we had made sure Teri had vegetarian meals each time we ate. He genuinely seemed to care about providing a great dining experience. We sat at a table with a family that was a lot of fun to be around. The father was German and the mother was Chinese. They met while working for Nestlé in Switzerland. Currently they are working in Cairo, managing quality control of the bottled water Nestlé produces in the Nile delta. They had two precious little children who spoke German and Chinese, and a little English and Arabic. The father offered to take us on a tour of the Nestlé plant, so hopefully we can make connections to do that.

Now for the tourist destinations! We visited several ancient Egyptian temples beginning with the Philae (pronounced Fee-Lay) temple on Elephantine Island near Aswan. Oftentimes photographers emphasize ancient Egyptian imagery, the hieroglyphics and relief sculptures of long-dead pharaohs. These are the images you see when you crack any book on ancient Egypt. But there is a history to the monuments that is often glossed over, a Christian history between the ancient pharaohs and present day. In the early days of Christianity in Egypt, Christians were often persecuted and they fled to regions in Upper Egypt. They found out-of-the-way places to worship where it would be difficult to be discovered. Often times they used ancient Egyptian temples as sanctuaries, and the evidence of this can be seen even today. Crosses were carved next to entryways, arches were formed out of squared-off doorways, and nooks emblazoned with crosses were carved out of walls to hold the bread and wine, the Eucharist.

One downside of the Christians adopting these places is they defaced the ancient Egyptian carvings. They destroyed the faces, hands, and feet, and sometimes the entire sculptures of Egyptian gods. Part of me hates it that such ancient artwork was destroyed, but at the same time I was awed that Christians had worshipped at these locations 1,300 years ago. Today’s Coptic Christians are the descendents of these early Christians, who were descendents of the ancient Egyptians themselves. In fact the Coptic liturgical language that Coptic Orthodox Christians use even today is based on the hieroglyphic language. Invading Muslims around the year 800 cut out the tongues of anybody who spoke the Coptic language thus solidifying Arabic as the primary language in Egypt. Apparently somebody kept speaking it, otherwise it wouldn’t be around today. (In an earlier journal entry I reported that Arabic was connected to the hieroglyphic language. That was incorrect.)

The Philae temple was one of several temples built during Ptolemaic rule. When the Greeks invaded and captured Egypt, they left most of the religious and governmental structure intact. They went so far as to construct new temples in the ancient Egyptian style and dedicated them to Egyptian gods. This helped to appease the local Egyptian population they had just conquered.

Since we were in Aswan our guide decided to take us to the Aswan High Dam, the source of hydroelectric power in Egypt. It is also the dam that regulates the water level so that the Nile no longer floods annually like it used to before the 1960’s. However, a really unfortunate side effect of damming up so much water in one place is the underground water tables begin to rise. This is indeed a problem in Egypt as many monuments that have been preserved for thousands of years due to the dry land and air are beginning to deteriorate because the land and air are now very moist. This problem has been felt even as far away as Cairo.

That evening we set sail and arrived at Kom Ombo, another Ptolemaic temple. This temple was interesting because it still had some patches of colorful paint. All of the temples used to be covered in vibrant colors. It’s hard to imagine ancient Egyptian temples as anything other than that famous sandy yellow color, but there is still evidence of the colorful paint that used to coat the surfaces.

The next day we visited the Edfu temple. It was a temple similar in appearance to the Philae temple, but it was much larger. It had some of the best examples of hieroglyphics I had seen yet. Later in the day the boat stopped at Esna where Teri stayed on the boat while I went to the nearby ancient Egyptian temple of Khnum. It was dedicated to the Egyptian ram god of the same name. In order to get to it I had to pass by the obligatory gauntlet of vendors that marks the path to any tourist destination. In this case the temple was in the middle of a small town. It had been excavated, but it was below ground level, so I had to descend a long staircase to get to it. The only part of the temple that had been excavated was the hypostyle hall while the rest of the temple still lays buried under the town. The temple was only minimally defaced, probably because it was buried in sand for so long, and provided some of the best examples of Egyptian relief sculpture. However, it was already showing signs of decay because of the rising water tables. In fact some areas of the temple were so damp the stones looked like wet clay.

On the way back to our boat a vendor convinced me to enter his shop. I figured I would at least be nice and humor him, but he poured on the pressure for me to buy something, anything. I wasn’t really interested in anything he was selling so I told him I would only buy a carpet for a one hundred Egyptian Pounds, an amount well below the actual value of the carpet. Much to my surprise he kept lowering the price until he reached my offer, desperate to make a sale. I told him that was great, but I had to get more money from my boat because I didn’t have enough with me. But he knew that trick because he told me his assistant would go with me. So, I took the rug I didn’t really want and headed back to the boat with his assistant in tow. Along the way I told the assistant in broken Arabic that my boat was leaving in five minutes so I would hurry ahead and get the money if he would meet me at the boat. I forced the rug into his hands and began to walk away. The assistant shouted, “Run, run!” He was worried I would not make it to the boat in time to collect the money and pay him, so I waved and started to run. Halfway to the boat I thought, “This is stupid.” I slowed down and began to walk again. Right then a motorcycle zoomed by with my friend “the assistant” smiling and waving at me, so I started running again in an attempt to beat him to the boat. Luckily I did. I felt bad because all I wanted to do was make the vendor feel good that he had a customer in his shop, but unfortunately I probably made him mad because I didn’t buy the carpet as I promised. I just wish they didn’t use so much pressure to make a sale. What I learned out of all of this is that I just have to continue to be rude and ignore the vendors, which I hate doing.

During the night, our boat moved down the Nile to our final destination, Luxor. Luxor had the most sites to see, and on top of that, they were some of the most famous ones. We woke in the morning and boarded a bus to the West Bank, to the Colossi of Memnon. We stopped briefly there to view two large statues that are all that is left of a gigantic funerary temple.

Next we moved on to the Valley of the Kings where we were permitted to enter three tombs. Each tomb was a long descending shaft that had sculptures on the walls and ceilings. At the very bottom was a large vault where a mummy of a pharaoh had once laid. The Valley of the Kings is also where King Tutankhamun’s (King Tut’s) tomb was found by Howard Carter in 1922, though I did not enter it. I figured I would leave that for April when my family is going to visit (plus it cost extra).

Our tour guide then took us to an alabaster shop that charged waaaaaaaaaaay too much for their handiwork. I was more interested in the bloody handprints that were over the doorway to a house next to the shop. The handprints were the only evidence I saw of the Muslim feast that was going on during that time. The feast comes on a certain number of days after Ramadan. Muslims slaughter sheep and give a portion of the meat to the needy. They traditionally soak their hands in the blood of the sheep and then put bloody handprints over their doors to ward off evil. Teri was happy we took the cruise when we did. Apparently the slaughter is a pretty gruesome sight in the streets of Cairo. Since Teri is a vegetarian, she wasn’t too interested in all of the blood spilling.

Next we went to Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple. This is a funerary temple that I studied in art history in college and loved! It is an Egyptian structure, so I loved it immediately, but it is such a distinctive piece of Egyptian architecture. In fact it is a complete departure from the typical Egyptian style of round columns with flowery capitals. From a distance the boxy, post and lintel design seems featureless, but up close it is a different story. Every surface of the temple is covered with hieroglyphics and relief sculptures. Hatshepsut was a pharaoh, and even though she was a woman she was still depicted with the false beard that the male pharaohs wore. I found one interesting relief sculpture of a pregnant Hatshepsut still wearing the false beard.

Then we moved to the East Bank of the Nile where the enormous Karnak Temple stands. Karnak was composed of sprawling sections added on by various pharaohs through the ages including Hatshepsut, Ramses II, and Akhenaten, among others. It was such an enormous temple I had difficulty photographing it. In a section called the Great Hypostyle Hall I was dwarfed by hundreds of columns that formed a great chamber.

Then our last stop was the Luxor temple, which was unique not only because Coptic Christians had used it as a worship space, but Romans had painted paintings on the walls and Muslims had built a mosque just inside the front door. The mosque is still functional to this day. It’s interesting to think that worshipers from four different religions used the building to worship their respective gods.

Well, I think that’s it for this entry. Take a look at the pictures from some more in depth information. In my next entry I will be writing about my recent trip to Rome and Florence, Italy. I have many, many more interesting stories to tell you about my time there. Take care. I hope all is well with you wherever you are.

Yours in Christ,
Jason

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